The U.S. Justice Department has opened a statewide investigation into the conditions in Alabama’s male prisons, a development coming on the heels of a failed prison reform bill intended to address widespread overcrowding.

That bill, which would have borrowed $800 million to construct four new prisons throughout the state, failed during the regular session and wasn’t considered during the subsequent special session in August.

According to a news release from the DOJ, the investigation launched Thursday will focus on whether prisoners are “adequately protected from physical harm and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners” and correctional officers as well as whether Alabama prisons “provide sanitary, secure and safe living conditions.”

The United States Department of Justice.

The United States Department of Justice.

“I am very pleased to have my office join the Northern and Middle Districts of Alabama as well as the Civil Rights Division in opening an investigation into the Alabama prison system,” U.S. Attorney Kenyen R. Brown of the Southern District of Alabama said. “All citizens, even those who are incarcerated, should expect sanitary conditions of habitation that are free of physical harm and sexual abuse.”

In a statement, the DOJ said it had not reached any conclusions regarding allegations of sexual assault, use of force or other violations of prisoners’ rights. However, under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), the department has the authority to investigate violations of prisoners’ constitutional rights resulting from a “pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of such rights.”

The department has conducted CRIPA investigations of correctional systems in several other states. Where violations have been found, the resulting settlement agreements have led to important reforms. The current investigation will be handled by the special litigation section of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division with assistance from Brown’s office as well as U.S. Attorneys for the Northern and Middle districts of Alabama.

“Our obligation is to protect the civil rights of all citizens, including those who are incarcerated,” U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance of the Northern District said. “This investigation provides us with an opportunity to work collaboratively with the state of Alabama to assess current conditions and ensure constitutionally sufficient conditions exist for all prisoners.”

The Alabama Department of Corrections.

The Alabama Department of Corrections.

Alabama prisons, and notably the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, have made headlines recently for issues of overcrowding, riots, work strikes and violence between prisoners and against correctional officers.

In September, correctional officer Kenneth Bettis, a 44-year-old Monroeville resident, died after being stabbed by a Holman inmate earlier in the month. Holman has also had a revolving door of wardens recently, including three changes in the last nine months.

At the beginning of the year, Gov. Robert Bentley and the state department of corrections announced the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative. At the time officials called status quo “unsustainable” — saying decades of underfunding had “created a system where security concerns created by overcrowding and understaffing consume the majority of department resources.”

However, at the close of the regular legislative session, lawmakers had failed to find a version of the $800 million prison bill both the House and Senate could agree on. At the time, many predicted the state’s failure to address its own correctional issues could ultimately lead to federal intervention.

Though that hasn’t occurred yet, today’s announcement of the civil rights investigation certainly suggests Alabama’s correctional facilities have Washington’s attention.

“The vulnerability of a prisoner makes it even more important that basic hygiene and safe accommodations are afforded the inmates,” U.S. Attorney George L. Beck Jr. Alabama’s Middle District said.

While the investigation will be handled by federal authorities, the DOJ is asking any individuals with relevant information to contact the civil rights department via phone at 205-244-2001 or by email at

So far, the Alabama Department of Corrections has yet to release a statement on the investigation. Thursday afternoon Bentley said he would “welcome the investigation,” adding that working with the DOJ in the past led to “critical changes” at Tutwiler Prison for Women.

“We both share a common goal of wanting to improve the safety of the officers and inmates within the facilities,” Bentley said. “This issue of overcrowding is a decade’s old issue that must be addressed. I am looking forward to again working with the Alabama Legislature to permanently solve this problem.”

Updated at 4:36 p.m. to add statements from the office of Gov. Robert Bentley.